Working the famed copper reserves of the Atacama Desert has forever been a man’s domain. But that’s changing.
The arid plateau of the Atacama Desert blankets the northernmost stretches of Chile, hemmed in only by the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Its vast expanse is nearly devoid of life, save for the occasional roadside alpaca pack or slow-growing cardon cactus.
But the Atacama’s bareness is deceptive, for just below the desert’s silky dunes and its moonscapes of salt and hardened lava sit Chile’s lifeblood—millions of tons of copper reserves.
I’ve come to the Atacama to visit Chile’s most important mine: Chuquicamata, known locally as Chuqui, run by the state-owned copper mining company Codelco. Though this century-old open pit copper mine—the largest on Earth—is still responsible for about one-fifth of the company’s total output, its resources have been largely depleted.
Dwindling production and the discovery of additional subterranean copper reserves spurred Codelco to start digging deeper, and the company is currently in the throes of a $4.2 billion underground mine development project.
But my interest in the mine has less to do with copper, and more to do with the miners themselves. A Chilean friend once told me that there was a long-held belief in the country that were a woman to enter a mine, havoc would surely break loose. Mines were considered female, and thus were only to be entered by men—a woman entering a mine could lead to jealousy and outrage, which, in turn, could result in production losses at best, disaster at worse.
Those beliefs are changing. Though Chile’s copper mining industry has seen its fair share of ups and downs over the past few years—the most notable of which was the 2010 collapse and rescue effort that riveted the world inspired the new film The 33—mines becoming angry at the presence of women are not to blame. The 2010 incident took place because of a private mining company’s poor management and a blatant lack of safety precautions, and most financial downfalls are easily attributed to the ever ebbing and flowing global demand for minerals.
Currently, women account for around 7.5 percent of the Chile’s mining labor force (although 80 percent work in administrative positions). While their numbers are small, it’s worth noting that the very idea of female miners was virtually unheard of until recently. The decades since Chile’s return to democracy have marked a gradual—but certainly noticeable—shift in attitude about women.
Today, Chile has a female president, Michelle Bachelet, and a female mining minister, Aurora Williams. The government now offers a certification to companies who meet a certain set of criteria with respect to gender equality. Codelco’s Gabriela Mistral mine, where women make up 24 percent of the workforce, has already received the certification.
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